Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving


Grocery Store Lessons: Labelling lies (Part 2)


A few weeks ago I attended a webinar on “gluten-related disorders”. The first part was pretty much a rehash of things I already knew. However, I learned some interesting things about food labelling in the second part.

I’ve noticed a few purportedly gluten-free products on the market that also state: “made in a facility that processes wheat”. Now, I’ve always advised clients with celiac disease to avoid products that have that disclaimer on the label. It turns out that these products may still be perfectly safe. However, I know that the “new” labelling laws (weren’t they released a couple of years ago now?) in Canada were meant to remove that confusion. Products are not supposed to include statements like the above and “may contain x” unless there is a reasonable risk that they may in fact contain the ingredient in question. This is because so many manufacturers were including these statements just to cover their butts in the event that a customer experienced an adverse reaction. However, it made it extremely difficult for people with allergies and celiac disease to find products that were safe for consumption. Despite their apparent inability to adherence to the labelling laws, products that are labelled “gluten-free” but that are “made in a facility that processes wheat” may truly be gluten-free (or at least within the 20 ppm that’s permissible in a gluten-free food).

The even more interesting thing that I learned is that companies proclaiming their products to be “gluten-free” don’t have to test for gluten during any stage of the manufacturing process. Yep, that’s right. Manufacturers are under no obligation to test the raw ingredients, nor the final product, for gluten-contamination before the food hits the stores. Of course, if a company is proclaiming a food to be gluten-free then it’s in their best interest not to sicken their customers and they most likely will test their product for gluten. However, there are probably some naive manufacturers (witness the product mentioned in my last post) who don’t realize the potential of cross-contamination nor the risks to their customers associated with such contamination. There are also instances of suppliers changing or corners being cut and it is entirely possible that a formerly gluten-free product may become glutenous. If you are concerned that a product labelled gluten-free may contain gluten you can contact the Gluten Free Watchdog which is basically the site of the gluten police. Unfortunately, as gluten testing is costly reports can only be viewed with a subscription ($4.99/mo). If you have celiac disease or work with a number of clients with celiac disease or wheat allergies this subscription could be life-saving.



What’s the *BEST* diet?


There are so many diets out there; from low-carb (and its many iterations), vegetarian, vegan, low-fat, paleo, gluten-free and on and on. The one thing that many of their followers seem to have in common is the absolute certainty that their diet is the best diet. It amuses me when I see back-to-back tweets from people praising their chosen religion diet.

I’m sick of seeing people (especially my fellow dietitians) passing judgement on the diets of others, presuming that their chosen diet is superior. Power to you if you are healthy and enjoy following your diet of choice. That doesn’t mean that the diets followed by others are inferior. It doesn’t mean that only you (and others following the same diet) are eating “real food”. What the heck does that even mean?? I’m fairly certain that I didn’t imagine my last meal, that I didn’t consume “fake” food. Just because it works for you doesn’t mean that it’s going to work for everyone. This isn’t Mormonism, you’re not going to secure your place in foodie heaven by converting more people to your way of eating.

Each diet has its drawbacks and nutrients of concern. Each of these diets has its benefits. I could go through many of them and list out the pros and cons but that would be tedious for me to do and tedious for you to read. So which one is the best? The one that you are happiest and healthiest following. The one that you can easily follow for the rest of your life without feeling like you’re on a “diet”. Yeah, sorry, I sucked you in with that title. It’s the truth though. Me, I don’t follow a diet with labels. I enjoy a variety of foods. I eat meat, but I have been known to go weeks without it. I eat grains, but I try to vary them and may not have them at every meal. I’m an agnostic eater.

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Gluten 101


Based on the number of frustrating conversations I’ve had with people regarding gluten it seems like there are a few things that need clarification. I know that you, my lovely regular readers don’t, but on the off chance that someone in need of guidance is googling gluten perhaps they’ll stumble across this post.

Let’s start with the fact that going gluten-free is not the magical cure-all that many self-appointed nutrition gurus would have you believe. Yes, people with celiac disease, gluten allergies and intolerances will most definitely benefit from eliminating sources of gluten from their diets. However, if you are not suffering from any of these conditions (I might add self-diagnosis is not advisable) there is absolutely no need to eliminate gluten from your diet. I do believe that variety is more than the spice of life and it’s important to consume a variety of grains, too much of any one food is not going to be of benefit to your body. That being said, eliminating gluten is not a magical weight loss cure. It’s the same as eliminating any major contributor of calories; if you consume fewer calories as a result of eliminating it you will lose weight, if you simply replace those calories with those from other foods you will not lose weight. It seems like gluten is the latest villain in the dietary world. If only we could eliminate gluten then we would all be migraine-free, cured of diverticulitis,  there would be no more arthritis, or ADHD, perhaps we could even attain world peace!

Okay… so going gluten-free won’t cure everything but if you are going gluten-free the first thing you need to know is what foods contain gluten, and what foods don’t. I’ve had the fun time of trying to explain to people that if a food is gluten-free then it’s also wheat-free while they have been adamant that the reverse is true. It reminds me of the logic lessons in elementary school: all tulips are flowers, that doesn’t mean that all flowers are tulips. Gluten is found in a number of grains: wheat, rye, barley, triticale, and often oats (most oats are cross contaminated but some gluten-free oats are available and may be tolerated by people who cannot consume gluten). For a complete list of ingredients to avoid if you’re going gluten-free visit celiac.ca. You also need to be aware that there’s a risk of cross-contamination if foods are grown, processed, or prepared in close proximity to gluten-containing foods.

If you’re going gluten-free you don’t need to eliminate all grains and starchy foods. Despite what some people have tried to tell me, rice, potatoes, corn, and quinoa do not contain gluten. Celiac.ca has another great list of foods that you can eat if you’re unable to consume gluten.

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Gluten-free weight loss

I’ve blogged about the fallacy of weight loss resulting from the modern vegan diet before. As the gluten-free trend continues I frequently hear about people choosing to go gluten-free in order to lose weight. Many packaged gluten-free foods have a health halo. That is, people believe that they’re healthy simply because they’re gluten-free. However, the same rules apply to gluten-free packaged foods as to any other packaged foods and label-reading is still essential.

You may lose weight on a gluten-free diet. However, you’re much more likely to do so if you’re not replacing one processed packaged food for another. In fact, many packaged gluten-free foods often have more calories than their traditional glutenous counterparts. While gluten-free breads continue to evolve and improve in formulation, many are still very dense and while their slices may appear smaller than regular bread they may still have equivalent, or more, calories.

Beyond calories, gluten-free baked goods usually have less fibre than glutenous baked goods. Gluten-free bread tends to have about 1 gram of fibre per slice. Compare that to regular whole wheat bread which generally has about 4 grams of fibre per slice.

Before you decide to go gluten-free (without a doctor’s recommendation) remember that label-reading still applies. Ensure that you’re still getting sufficient fibre. Regardless of whether or not you’re going gluten-free, you should try to choose minimally processed foods as often as possible. Finally, gluten-free doesn’t mean calorie-free but it often means fibre-free.


Wheat vs chocolate: a battle to your death

It seems like more and more people are turning to gluten-free or wheat-free products as a panacea, regardless of whether or not the avoidance of gluten or wheat is warranted. There are a number of books and advocates for such a diet; the primary one being Wheat Belly. Not having read the book myself (although I suppose I will have to remedy this at some point – I just don’t want to actually pay money to do so) I can’t comment on it directly. My current approach to dealing with zealous converts is to state that consuming too much of any one type of food is not a balanced diet and that most of us could benefit from consuming a wider variety of grains.

Anyway… A fan of the book enthusiastically told me that whole wheat bread causes a greater spike in blood sugar than a chocolate bar does. This did nothing to convince me of the evils of wheat. However, I can see how it might help to persuade someone who doesn’t fully understand the concept of the glycemic index (GI) and glycemic load (GL).

The GI is “the blood glucose response of a given food compared to a standard (typically; glucose or white bread).” It’s how rapidly your blood sugar will increase when you consume a particular food (containing 50 g of carbohydrate), as compared to a simple carbohydrate which is easiest for your body to convert into sugar. A GI of 55 or less is considered to be low, 56-69 is medium, and 70 and above is high. However, GI only considered the form of carbohydrate in a food, it failed to take into account the fact that people may not (and often do not) consume foods in quantities that will provide them with 50 g of carbohydrate. Thus, GL was developed. The GL is “the amount of carbohydrate in a food multiplied by the glycemic index of that carbohydrate. The result is then divided by 100”. The GL is a percentage; the lower the number the less overall impact the food actually has on your blood sugar. Less than 10 is low GL, 11-19 is intermediate, and more than 20 is high.

Let’s compare that whole wheat bread and chocolate bar. One slice of whole wheat bread has an average GI of 69 and a GL of 9. One ounce of chocolate has a GI of 49 and a GL of 9. Whole wheat flour is finely ground so it’s rapidly converted into blood glucose. Even though chocolate has a lower GI than bread it actually has the same GL depending on the quantity consumed. Clearly, there is no reason to demonize bread based on this data alone. GI and GL are just a couple of small tools in food selection. Different sources will provide you with different figures for the same foods. In addition, the GL for one variety of whole wheat bread may vary significantly from another. The other foods you consume at a meal will all provide different GLs so unless you’re eating plain bread or bread with just jam on it, knowing the GL of your bread isn’t all that useful. Also, gluten-free and wheat-free breads have similar GI and GL profiles to whole wheat bread rendering a switch to these products for this reason alone unnecessary.

If you’re considering going wheat- or gluten-free because it’s the trendy thing right now you might want to reconsider. Unhealthy gluten-free products are a rapidly growing industry. Instead, consider consuming a wider variety of grains and try to consume more grains in as close to their natural state as possible. Some to try: wheat berries, buckwheat, wild rice, millet, groats, barley, etc.

*All figures taken from Perspectives in Nutrition by Gordon Wardlaw and Jeffrey Hampl (no APA or MLA here. Take that university education!)